16 June 2020 - Global

We must act to avoid a lost decade for African children

Yahye, Kowsar and Abdi

Today is International Day of African Children, which honours the 10,000+ school children who set out to protest against the black education act. It was on this day in 1976, in Soweto, South Africa, where children demanded their right to education.

While the context is different today and is not driven by the same deliberate and discriminatory policies, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to nationwide closures of schools across Africa, putting over 262.5 million children out of school. This is an unprecedented challenge for governments across Africa which are responsible for managing the crisis while ensuring that all African children can exercise their right to education.

But even pre-coronavirus, Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest rates of education exclusion, with more than one-fifth of children aged 6-11 years out of school, either because schools are too far, too expensive or non-existent. Coronavirus is threatening children’s basic right to learn and jeopardising their future.

Diaminatou Kanounté, a 16-year-old advocate from Mali, expresses how she feels in a poem:

It’s been 2 months that the schools are empty

Let the benches begin to wrinkle

A big delay is coming

A desperate look on his face

Wishes are lower

The learning stops

Let’s review our lessons and do our assignments

In order to better adapt to the opening of classes

This poem illustrates how many African children have perceived this prolonged period out of school. Children across the continent have expressed how they are suffering by not being able to play with their friends, losing their safe protective environment and access to school meals; a reality for 3.5m children in east and southern Africa. We know that when children are out of school, they are also at a higher risk of sexual violence and abuse including being forced into marriage. 

But how many more children like Diaminatou are there out there, amongst the 262.5 million out of school? How many have already lost hope? In this complex situation today, we should not forget the different risks that girls and boys face. At the end of the Ebola crisis, Sierra Leone recorded an increase of 11,000 teenage pregnancies. Girls who are pregnant are likely to drop out of school all together. How many girls have already been married since the beginning of COVID-19? What has been done to protect them?

While many governments have mobilised to set up some form of alternative learning systems, only a few governments have considered the specific risks for girls not being able to return to education. In Ghana, Mozambique and Ethiopia, governments have invested in remote-learning systems, but they haven’t always considered the huge disparities in access for some of the most vulnerable children. 

As a child rights organisation, Save the Children’s ambition is to ensure that the most vulnerable children are not forgotten and their rights are at the centre of the COVID-19 response. We are responding and adapting our programmes across the world and our staff are seeing first-hand the impact of disruption of routine health and nutrition services, school closures, reduced household income and the increase in violence across Africa. However, we are also witnessing incredible resilience among African children. 

In Sierra Leone, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Burkina Faso, we are supporting radio classes and distributing home learning kits to children so they can continue to learn from home. Aminata who is 17 is continuing her education through radio lessons in Sierra Leone. Although she finds it difficult to study through the radio and misses her school and friends, she is glad to continue to study during the nationwide lockdown.

As a professional who has been operating in Africa for over 20 years, I’ve been observing the terrible impact of COVID-19 on the education system. Nevertheless, I also recognise that it has also been an incredible accelerator to test, pilot and adapt the school system and learning for pupils across the continent.

Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation.”

With Mandela’s words in mind, it is now time to learn from this crisis, to adapt strategies and approaches to ensure quality and inclusive education. African governments have already demonstrated their resilience and their capacity to mitigate the sudden shocks. It is now time to go a stage further and invest in the future of this continent – the education and wellbeing of all African children. 

This will require a joint and coordinated effort, led by African governments. Ministers of Education will have to accelerate their efforts to ensure learning for all, including the most vulnerable children and begin to prepare for a robust school boarding in September 2020. To be successful, they will have to work hand-in-hand with the Ministers of Finance to accelerate investment in the education sector, so that we can protect a generation of children.

This commitment to re-invent the school system in Africa is certainly the best way to celebrate the Day of the African Child in 2020. Challenges are many, but opportunities have never been so clear.

To find out more about the Save Our Education campaign, click here